Archives for posts with tag: Foot Traffic

In the 1970’s, a program was initiated to teach all American elementary school students the metric system.  I was a part of that generation that learned metric in school and to us it was as simple as A,B,C and 1,2,3.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy for Ronald Reagan.  After he was elected in 1980, he decided to scrap the whole program and now we remain one of only three countries in the world (along with Burma and Liberia) to have a system other than metric.

I love the metric system.  It’s clean, rational and well-balanced.  The freezing point of water is zero, the boiling point is one hundred…easy.  There are a hundred centimeters in a meter, a thousand meters in a kilometer…makes sense.  Our system is neither logical, nor intuitive.  I can never remember how many cups in a gallon, how many yards in a mile, or how many square yards in an acre?  Even lifelong users are often stumped by these basic conversions.

American runners have a bit more knowledge of the metric system due to our participation in the frequent 5K & 10K races held in most cities.  Longer races of 50k and 100k are now becoming increasingly common in the ultra running scene.  In track and field, the most popular distances tend to be the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m.  As much as I’d like to see even more integration of the metric system into our society, there is one imperial measurement that I feel a reluctance to let go…the mile.

For many of us, our first exposure to measured running was on a high school track.  Each lap, we were told, is a quarter mile.  Four times around and buddy, you just ran yourself a mile.  Can you remember the first time you ran that far?  There was a real sense of accomplishment.  “Wow, I just ran a whole mile!”  It felt good.

Training runs are measured in both time and distance, but we almost always default to distance when discussing our training.  “Yeah, I did a 20 miler on Sunday.” or “I’ve been averaging more than 50 miles week.”  The advent of the GPS watch has made our obsession with distance even greater.

I know that the mile is just a unit of measurement (originally meant to denote a thousand paces by a Roman soldier) and no different in purpose than a kilometer.  But for runners, the mile has a historical significance and mystique that I believe will forever be linked to the difficulty we had in initially breaking the four minute mile barrier.

For almost ten years in the middle of the twentieth century, the world record in the mile remained unbroken at 4:01.4.  Scientists speculated that it may not be physiologically possible for a human to run any faster.  The four minute mile became sport’s elusive holy grail and runners the world over were determined to be the first to break it.

Roger Bannister, a British medical student, felt the barrier was more psychological than physical, and used newly developed training techniques to prepare for his many attempts. By 1954, Bannister, as well as Australian John Landy and American Wes Santee, were right on the verge of breaking through.  Finally, at Oxford’s Iffley Track on a cool windy day in May, Bannister was able to accomplish what so many before him had tried and failed.

Sports Illustrated called Bannister’s feat one of the greatest sporting achievements of the twentieth century.  More than fifty years later, the four minute mile remains a benchmark for all competitive runners and to this day more people have stood on the summit of Mt. Everest than have run a four minute mile.

When I heard that an 83-year-old Bannister carried the Olympic torch a few weeks ago around that same track in Oxford, I was inspired to see how fast I could run a mile.  Even though I’ve run races in distances anywhere from 5 kilometers to 50 miles, I have never raced just a single mile all out.  The mile requires a mix of both speed and endurance, which is why some refer to it as the perfect distance.  Others call it the cruelest distance because of the concentrated suffering that must be endured.  Sounds like fun.

Every summer, Portland’s Foot Traffic running store organizes all-comer track meets at Grant High School. These events are super family friendly and are mostly just an excuse for a bunch of adults and kids to run around and have a good time.  There are 60m, 100m, 400m, 800m and one mile races on the track and the long jump, high jump and softball throw in the infield.  Check out this awesome video to get a feel for how cool this event is :

summer all-comer track meet.

Those three-year-olds racing around the track were so ridiculously cute.  It was interesting to see that the fastest kids were often the ones running barefoot.  The mile event wasn’t a race per se, but rather a prediction race.  You guess your time beforehand, leave your watch behind, and whoever finishes closest to their predicted time wins.  I had no idea how fast I’d run, but guessed 5:30 because that’s what the guy in front of me wrote down.

The race was filled with runners of all different ages and abilities.  There wasn’t a whole lot of strategy involved.  We all just went out as fast as we could and tried to hang on till the end.  There was lots of zigging and zagging, passing and lapping, but somehow we all managed to finish.  I was able to break the elusive six minute mile barrier, finishing in 5:38.  The winner was a six-year-old girl in pigtails who ran with her Dad.  She finished in 10:46, just 2 seconds off of her predicted time.

Today is the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics.  As a way to honor the Olympic spirit (and all those cute little kids at the Foot Traffic meet), I suggest that you go to your local high school track and run, jog, or walk a mile.  It doesn’t matter how fast or slow.  Leave your iPod and smart phone at home and focus on each lap.  Pump your arms through the turns and float down the straightaways.  Visualize being in London and competing against the best in the world.  Feel the burn of that final lap and then sprint the last 100 meters.  Cross the finish line with your arms in the air and imagine how it feels to be an Olympic champion.

The average temperature for Boston in the middle of April is a cool comfortable 47 degrees–just about perfect for slogging through a marathon.  This year, unfortunately, things turned out to be a bit warmer.

In the days leading up to the marathon I checked the weather report every few hours, finding it hard to believe that temperatures would actually be in the high 80’s.  The event organizers were freaking out.  There was talk that the race might even be cancelled.  From a liability standpoint they must have been worried about having 25,000 goal-obsessed fitness freaks running themselves to death.

The day before the race an email was sent out guaranteeing entry to anyone who wanted to defer until next year.  A few hundred runners took them up on the offer, but most of us had trained hard all winter for this race and flown long distances just to be here.  We weren’t going to miss out on this opportunity.

The flight from Portland to Boston was weird.  Walking down the aisle I saw passenger after passenger with that hollowed cheek look that all competitive runners seem to have.  It felt like a chartered flight to an anorexia rehab center.  Everyone drank water and got up frequently to stretch and use the bathroom.  I recognized a few runners from local races, including Morgan, the manager of the Foot Traffic running store.  The airline probably should have given us a kickback with all the gas they saved flying these super skinny runners cross country.

Yoshimi and I stayed in private room at the Berkeley Hostel, a bargain at $80/night.  We didn’t realize it when we booked the room, but this hostel is just a few hundred yards from the finish line.  This would definitely come in handy later.  The place was filled with groups of runners from all over the world:  Spain, China, Brazil, Japan, Italy.  I had breakfast the first morning with a guy from Denmark who told me he trained for Boston’s notorious hills by running up and down Denmark’s highest mountain…all 561 feet of it.

The whole city of Boston felt like a big running convention.  Every year Adidas, one of the sponsors of the marathon, designs commemorative clothing they sell at the Expo.  This year’s gear was bright orange and black.  You couldn’t go anywhere in town without seeing runners proudly showing off their Boston Marathon schwag.  At the Expo, I saw Dean Karnazes, the Ultramarathon Man.  This is a guy who used to do all-night training runs and have pizzas delivered to him mid-workout.  Like many famous people (Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, the Mona Lisa), Dean was much smaller in person than you would imagine him to be.

The night before the marathon we went out for a typical Boston seafood extravaganza.  We started out with bowls clam chowder, followed by yummy lobster-stuffed ravioli, and then a whole 2 lb. lobster for the main course.  The waiter even gave us bibs so wouldn’t make a mess of ourselves.  We washed it all down with a couple a pints of Sam Adams (the beer, not the mayor of Portland).  Just as we were finishing up, a giant 7 lb. lobster was wheeled out to the table next ours.  It made our 2 pounder look like a little crawfish.

The logistics of organizing something like the Boston Marathon is enough to boggle the mind.  There are thousands of runners, volunteers, spectators, sponsors, media, security, medical personal, transportation, hydration, nutrition.  Just think of all the porta potties you need–it’s crazy.

School buses took us from Boston to the start of the race in Hopkinton.  The runners arrived in waves and some of us had to wait more than 3 hours for the 10am start time.  At Hopkinton High School they set up what is called the Athlete’s Village, where there was coffee, bagels, bananas, Gatorade and pre-race massages.  Shade, however, was in short supply and even at 7am the sun was already beating down on us.  The experienced Boston runners brought camping mats and caught a couple extra hours of sleep.  All in all, it felt like a giant runner’s Woodstock.

The Boston Marathon is a point-to-point course that travels east through the towns of Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton and Brookline before arriving in Boston.  Because the roads through these historic towns are so narrow, the marathon must organize it’s 25,000 participants into three waves, each starting 20 minutes apart.  I was in the first wave, not too far from those Kenyan and Ethiopian speedsters.  While waiting for the start, I met a guy from New Orleans–a fellow alumni of my alma mater, Tulane University.  He said the heat reminded him of a steamy summer morning in Louisiana.

The first five miles of the course are mostly downhill, which normally wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that it’s easy to go out too fast and trash the quads.  I managed to keep my pace under control, helped no doubt by the oppressive sun.  The heat was a bummer, but there wasn’t anything you could do about it, so I resigned myself to running slow and smart.  In a way it was kind of a relief not to have any time pressure and to be able to just savor the whole experience.

And what an experience it was.  Every inch of the course was lined with cheering spectators.  To help us combat the heat, they broke out the garden hoses and the super soaker squirt guns.  Little kids handed out those push up freezer pops.  It had probably been 30 years since I had a popsicle and I totally forgot how that icy-cold sugary-sweetness really hits the spot on a hot day.  My favorites were the blueberry flavored ones.  Remember how they turned your tongue that freaky blue color?

I ran a few miles with a guy from Portland, a member of our local Red Lizards running club.  We tried to keep the conversation going to help the miles pass by, but it was just too hot to concentrate.  Later I passed Dick Hoyt and his son, Rick.  Even though Rick is confined to a wheelchair, together they have completed hundreds of races, including the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.  These guys are local legends and this year was their 30th Boston Marathon.

At the halfway point we passed Wellesley College.  The girls were out in full force, cheering us on and offering kisses for support.  I had to stop when I saw a sign that said, “Kiss me I’m from Oregon!”  It’s not every day you get a chance to kiss a college girl at my age.

After Wellesley I really started to struggle.  At every water stop I would grab two cups, one to drink and the other to pour over my head.  But still I couldn’t keep cool.  Even when a little breeze would kick up, it would be hot, like a wave of heat escaping from an open oven.  Every few miles I’d pass a couple of soldiers walking the course in full Desert Storm gear.  It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself after seeing these guys trudging along.

At around mile 20 in Newton is the start of the famous Heartbreak Hill.  It’s not a huge hill by Oregon standards, but it’s long and steady and comes at a point when you’re just starting to hit the wall.  I was surprised to see so many competitive runners reduced to walking.  Upon reaching the top I caught a second wind.  I put my head down, started pumping my arms and passing other runners.  Only five miles left to go.

The rest of the race was a bit of a blur.  I remember passing Boston College, seeing the giant Citgo sign and then the John Hancock Tower.  In the last mile I passed a guy dressed up like Minnie Mouse.  It doesn’t matter how bad I feel, I’m not going to let myself get beat by a cartoon character.  I crossed the finish line in 3:32:55 in 3,446th place.  It was the slowest, the hardest and the most enjoyable marathon I’ve run.

The temperatures maxed out at 89 degrees that day and over 2000 runners needed medical attention.  It’s a miracle no one died.  The winning time of 2:12:40 was almost ten minutes slower than last year (that’s a distance of more than two miles for those guys).  Geoffrey Mutai, who ran the fastest marathon ever last year, dropped out of this year’s race at mile 18.  So, basically I beat the world’s fastest marathon runner.  Don’t let it get you down, Geoffrey.  Keep training hard and maybe you can beat me next time.

The following day Boston looked like the zombie apocalypse with thousands of battered and abused runners limping around town.  Yoshimi and I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  This year is Fenway’s 100th anniversary and even though the Sox got crushed 18-3, it was awesome to see the Green Monster up close and personal.

The Boston Marathon is on almost every serious runner’s life list.  I went into this race with some pretty high expectations, yet still the overall experience blew me away.  The history, the crowd support, the organization, the prestige all combine to make each and every runner feel like a superstar.  Even though my legs are still a bit sore, I’ve already started dreaming about my next Boston Marathon.